Interview With… An Entertainment Lawyer

Q: What’s the difference between a lawyer and a vampire?

A: A vampire only sucks blood at night.

Lawyer jokes abound, but as an author there’s no one I’d rather have in my corner when it comes down to questions of entertainment law or intellectual property (IP) than my good friend and colleague, Jillian C. Allen, Esq. Luckily for us, Jillian has agreed to take some time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions!

Jillian Allen

Jillian received her Master-In-Laws degree from Santa Clara University (2010), specializing in Intellectual Property law. She received her law degree from Dalhousie University (2009). She also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Acadia University (2006) majoring in Sociology with minors in Psychology and Fine Art. During her years at Dalhousie University she received several scholarships and the David M. Jones award for outstanding character and inspiration. She is a member of the State Bar of California and the Nova Scotia Bar Society.

 

What is the difference between an agent and an entertainment/IP lawyer? If agents negotiate contracts, what does the lawyer do?

Agents are pro-active. Entertainment lawyers are reactive, and they process the deals the agents create.

In California, you need a license from the Labor Commissioner in order to call yourself a talent agent. In order to get a license, there are several requirements, such as that the prospective agent must submit a filing fee, which is renewed annually, and other supporting documents. Most A-list artists sign with talent agencies.

In terms of “differences” between an agent and an entertainment lawyer – the path that one takes to become an agent vs. a lawyer is different. Most agents work as assistants at agencies before becoming a licensed “agent”. Whereas to become a lawyer, you typically have to obtain a four-year undergraduate degree, prior to going to law school for an additional three years. In California, once your legal education is complete, you must fulfill several requirements in order to practice law in the state. You must pass the moral character exam, professional responsibility exam and finally the bar exam. The California bar exam is hands down the most difficult bar exam in North America, with a pass rate in the 40% range. The path to becoming an entertainment lawyer is therefore longer than the path to becoming an agent.

 

How ‘famous’ should an author be before they see a lawyer?

Not famous at all! The first time an artist is presented an offer, whether it be orally or in writing, get an entertainment/IP lawyer to review it for you!

 

Are there any common mistakes that artists make that could get them into legal trouble? What advice would you give to clients that you wish they would follow (but they usually don’t)?

Too many times I’ve seen artists bring in a contract for a lawyer’s opinion, after they’ve already signed it! For many artists at the beginning of their careers, that very first offer/contract that they receive is so exciting that they want to sign right away. For many, they’re scared that if they don’t sign right away, they’ll seem ungrateful or difficult to work with. So they sign without negotiating any terms or seeking a lawyer’s advice. Some beginning artists don’t think they can afford to involve a lawyer, so they don’t. However, most entertainment lawyers understand that an artist starting out their career isn’t looking to spend thousands of dollars negotiating a 5-page agreement. Most entertainment lawyers will set a flat fee to review an agreement and offer simple advice.

Another common mistake is an artist signing away all the rights in their work. For example, a production company may want to purchase the rights to make a motion picture based on an author’s book. If they are purchasing the copyright in the work, they’ll want rights to sequels, advertising, merchandising, franchising, and the list goes on. What about what the author wants? An entertainment lawyer’s job is to expect the unexpected and try to retain as much of these rights for the author’s use as possible. A lot of the language used in these types of agreements can be technical and intimidating, so that’s why an artist should always seek legal advice from a lawyer who has a background in entertainment/IP related work.

 

Can you tell us any interesting stories about your work as an entertainment/IP lawyer in California? (leaving out names or identifying details, of course!)

Hmmm…a lot of the deals that I came across involved reality show pitches/pilots. Everyone involved is always so optimistic that this is going to be the “next big thing”, when in reality, most never get off the ground. The lawyer’s role is to register the corporate structure(s), and review and negotiate the contract particulars for the parties involved.

Another common issue is collaborative works. Many times a group of friends will come up with an idea that they want to get off the ground, but when it comes down to money, publicity and credit, this is where fractures begin. For example, we had a client on a popular reality show who grew to hate several of her cast mates and was refusing to film any scenes with them. A lot of the “lawyer work” in this particular situation involved many phone calls trying to defuse the situation and convince her that her role would be written off if she continued to insist on only filming scenes that involved her and her immediate family.

The entertainment industry in California does have a “small town” feel in the sense that it’s all “who you know” and getting people excited about your project.

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